The Body of Christ: Tough & Fragile

When I was in seminary I was taught: Small churches are tough. You can’t beat them to death with a stick! 

I believed that truism, and repeated it to others. Now I have fresh experience that allows me to see the backside of that truism, which is also true: Small churches are fragile.

So far in my career I have served two small churches as solo pastor — six years at Rock Creek Presbyterian (in a rural area outside Springfield, Illinois) and ten years at Poolesville Presbyterian (in a surprisingly rural corner of Montgomery County, Maryland).

Both of those congregations had long histories and many strengths. But both congregations also had serious weaknesses in three pivotal areas: histories that included conflicted relationships with previous pastors, inadequate buildings, and very few financial assets (less than $20,000 total savings). In some senses those weaknesses functioned as strengths because they had gotten everyone’s attention. The lay leaders knew that their churches were on the brink of failure and were ready to work hard — and perhaps even take some risks — to save them. Accordingly, I was able to enter into a robust partnership with the lay leaders and have fruitful ministry.

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130 Years of Ministry

Faith Chapel, Lucketts VANext Sunday, this church door will close.

After 130 years of ministry, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church (Lucketts, VA) is closing. I’ve been filling the pulpit for a brief time and will preach the final service on December 20.

I anticipate a modestly sized gathering that focuses on celebrating the life that has ended. In many ways, Sunday’s service will echo the many funerals that have transpired within these walls over the last 130 years.

Even during Advent, Christians are an Easter People, believing that new life comes out of death.

Our service includes a Statement of Intent such as this:

As we gather for worship, let us acknowledge with solemn joy God’s gift of this place, remembering with gratitude all who have worshiped here, the faith professed at this font, the gospel proclaimed from this pulpit, the assurance received at this table. Let us be grateful for God’s gifts, honest about our sorrow, open in our love, trusting in Jesus Christ, the only head of the church. The service today marks a passage for this congregation. A ministry is coming to a close; something new is about to be born. God is calling the members of this congregation to new ministry. Congregations are formed and congregations are disbanded but the Lord our God reigns forever.

If you’re a praying person, would you lift up a prayer for the Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church as it closes?

Advent 2015, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church, Lucketts, VA

Advent 2015, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church, Lucketts, VA

 

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Falwell Does Not Speak For This Christian

Last Friday night, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, addressed the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino. He said: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them. . . . I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

As a Christian pastor, I feel it necessary to denounce Falwell’s words. I always wondered why the church didn’t stand up to Nazism as Hitler was rising to power, but now I see how rhetoric creeps along, rising in temperature, until people fall sway to words that are so obviously corrupt. Perhaps we need to remember the lessons of history and not hesitate to stand up and say: These words were spoken by a supposedly Christian leader, but these words do not honor Jesus. These words do not speak for me.

First — Falwell’s words are not wise. Calling for students to carry guns on a college campus is foolish at best. The overwhelming majority of colleges prohibit concealed-carry for reasons that hardly need to be listed (unless you have forgotten what it’s like to be in your early twenties). What’s more, thinking that persons carrying guns could “end those Muslims” shows a profound lack of understanding about how these situations of carnage transpire and what it takes to end them. Remember the conversations about arming school secretaries after Sandy Hook/Newtown and why those eventually stopped?

Second — Falwell’s words are not appropriate for our day. Calling for Christians to feel fine about killing Muslims (in exactly those generic, applause-generating words) sets the globe back approximately 1,000 years. Let’s remember that the crusades turned out to be a bad idea. Revving up thousands of college students with the supposedly noble enterprise of killing Muslims? Those words are worse than unwise; they are evil.

Third — Falwell’s words, and the cavalier tone in which they were spoken, dishonor Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace. If you’ve met Jesus in the gospels, you’ll know that Jesus refused to use violence, or to let violence be used in his name. If you haven’t met Jesus, please don’t think that Falwell is his mouthpiece. Falwell has an agenda that has little to do with following Jesus.

The church is in the time of Advent — of preparation for the celebration of God’s coming into the world. God didn’t make that journey in order to stir up hatred and anger and talk of killing. God made that journey to give the world a glimpse of what love looks like.

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Advent is coming . . . .

Clergy know what Thanksgiving truly means — that Advent is upon us!

Over at RevGalBlogPals, the Matriarchs have rounded-up some favorite resources and tips appropriate to the Advent/Christmas season. I weighed in with a few of my own. I also added an Advent/Christmas category to my sidebar, in case any of those posts are helpful this season.

And if you’re a clergywoman and don’t know about RevGalsBlogPals, I invite you to find out more and join us! You are not alone. We have a website, blogring, closed Facebook group, and even a book!

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3rd Sunday, Lent Pilgrimage, Shepherds Cave

Third Sunday in Lent

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. ~Luke 2:8

The Shepherds Cave in Bethlehem

The Shepherds Cave in Bethlehem

The field is long and sloping, with scraggly grass and plentiful rocks. We descend into a cave, using steps carved out of rock. Inside, the rock roof is low. A Palestinian Christian named Sam tells us about the shepherds and sheep that have used this cave for centuries. I have preached these texts for years, but I hear it all as if for the first time. Being here gives new power to the Christmas narrative.

What new word are you eager to hear this Lent?

Prayer: O Spirit, give me new ears.

 

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Wishing You Perfect Lighting this Christmas

One reason we like TV is that it presents our world as more than it usually appears to be. I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Parenthood or Masters of Sex, where characters effortlessly wear beautiful clothing, even when long days stretch into late nights, where women are never seen without full makeup, and where the sets, whether homes, offices, restaurants, or courtrooms, are more beautiful than those actual places would be. Each color palette is carefully conceived, the lighting angles are flattering, and the tilt of the camera and its length of focus brings out the emotion in an actor’s expression.

We know that in real life those characters — at least if they were us — would be slipping off their high heels, falling asleep from that much drinking, or looking in vain for a bench at the Hall of Justice. But is there something more that’s different between the screen world and the real world? Do all of the cinematic components create a false reality, or do they help us see the reality that we are often blind to?

We share many store lines with the characters we watch. We have a career that rises and falls — but not as captivatingly as that of the dapper Don Draper. We have relationships that are stretched and strained and patched back together — but not as poetically and decisively as the marriages on Parenthood.

Call this “heightened reality.” I have been working on a manuscript for many months, and I am aware of the literary devices that authors employ to heighten reality. Sentence structure, repetition, alliteration and word choice — they help create a mood and sense of flow. Since I’m writing a memoir, I’m aware that, in a sense, I’m creating a screen version of my own life. I have mixed feelings about the whole process!

But as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, I wonder if one of the treasures of the season is the dose of heightened reality the holiday gives our everyday lives. We treasure a candlelight service because the darkness, the music, and the candles create that slightly-blurred version of reality that’s gorgeous, and helps us notice what’s really going on underneath. On Christmas Eve that underlying reality is the story of the Incarnation — God become a baby for the sake of Love.

In our minds the story has the shine of a gold-foil Christmas card — the cold slab of a manger becomes a rustic crib, the aches of a young mother who gave birth after a long donkey ride becomes a pleasant journey, and the poverty of a straw-strewn birthing room is orchestrated with choirs of angels.

Both versions of the story — the nitty-gritty and the gold-foil — are true. In fact, the Christian life is founded on the truth that underneath ordinary life courses the Kingdom of God.

But most of the time who can pay attention? We are busy dressing in off-the-rack clothes, managing our ordinary careers, and doing the best we can with whatever marital or non-marital state we may find ourselves in at the moment. It is all very humdrum, most of the time. So we tune in to the heightened reality of our TVs to be reminded of the beauty and richness that lies under the surface of reality. It’s just more obvious when the lighting is perfect.

This Christmas, I wish you “perfect lighting” so you can enjoy a heightened dose of reality, right in the middle of your own life. Personally, that’s what I’m hoping for.

I hope we all find that reality in the crumpled wrapping paper, the misshapen Christmas cookies, the lights that blink out at the worst possible moment, and the spouse who wakes up with morning breath. Because coursing right underneath all of that, is the beautiful shining thing we call Love. It is the same Love which undergirds our Planet and each of our lives, every day. We just see it better when the lighting is perfect.

Rembrandt etching nativity

Adoration of the Shepherd: with the lamp, by Rembrandt

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For Unto Us a Child is Born

We sat in the cosy balcony of the historic church, surrounded by children with their parents. In front of us a brother and sister got on their knees and used the balcony’s ledge to fill out their children’s bulletins. Beside me a boy of about 12 never stopped reading a thick book, except to lift his head when the choir sang a resounding “Alleluia” and the strings of the chamber orchestra struck heavenly chords. And squarely in my line of vision sat a young teenage girl with her dad, the girl’s head tilted onto his shoulder, and his head tilted onto hers, so the two heads formed a diamond.

For unto us a child is born. A son is given.

On this third Sunday of Advent, my husband and I attended Leesburg Presbyterian Church for worship. The sanctuary choir and a chamber orchestra performed Bach’s Cantata #142, led by Music Director Terry Sisk. Glorious.

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Worlds vs. Words: Which Lasts Longer?

Lectionary Study on Mark 13

Is the world coming to an end, and how do we feel about that? This weekend I saw a dystopian/utopian movie, listened to end-times texts read in church, and worked out to Radioactive at Golds Gym. (be careful about clicking that link, it’s an ear worm) Welcome to the New Age! This is it, the Apocalypse!

With the impending demise of the world hanging over my head, I began to wonder which lasts longer: worlds or words? Words would seem to be the most ephemeral of all things! Yet I submit three items for your consideration:

1) Interstellar is a 3-hour spectacle that reaches deep into time and space. Interestingly enough, it avoids any mention of a belief system, or anything to believe in, other than human achievement. Instead, the movie tickles the edges of theoretical physics and pays homage to Love (Love is the one thing we can perceive that transcends space and time, says Anne Hathaway’s character).

2) The text this first Sunday of Advent was from Mark 13, which includes these words of Jesus: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. The text also suggests that at the end of all things our galaxy will disappear (the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light).

3) And from left field, because who knows when and how John Calvin will pop up. . . Have you seen the video of the crow sledding down a snowy roof? It is delightful, so I read about crows on Wikipedia, where I learned that crows are playful and intelligent. Which made me wonder about the origin of the expression “eating crow.” Which led me to this: Eating crow is of a family of idioms having to do with eating and being proven incorrect, such as to “eat dirt” and to “eat your hat” (or shoe), all probably originating from “to eat one’s words”, which first appears in print in 1571 in one of John Calvin’s tracts, on Psalm 62: “God eateth not his words when he hath once spoken.”

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Merry Christmas Eve!

Eugene Peterson’s poem, Cradle.

Thanks to Eerdmans Publishing.

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Sing, All You Citizens!

Bethlehem Prayer Service at National Cathedral 2013

Prayer Service at National Cathedral, simulcast with Bethlehem, Palestine

One reason music is so powerful is context.

We hear an “oldie” on the radio and remember the sweetheart we danced with “back then” and feel a pang of nostalgia.

We hear the theme music announcing a favorite TV show and the pleasures of watching that show come flooding back.

Music we enjoy with one crowd might be excruciating if, for instance, our parents happen to be in the room.

Music we enjoy at a concert may have us banging on the elevator doors when we’re caught in a Muzak version. Context matters.

One reason that sacred music moves us, is that we remember all the times and places we have sung that same song before. The meanings form new layers over time. Who were we with and what did that worship experience mean to us, and to the others we worshipped beside?

This morning I had the opportunity to sing Christmas carols at a service at the National Cathedral, a joint service with a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, Palestine. (I blogged an invitation to the service here and the post includes some background on the service.)

It was 10:00 AM for Washington, and 5:00 PM for Bethlehem. A special treat was the Bethlehem Bell Choir, which played an introit. They did a harmonious job and looked like the bell choirs in small churches I have served: a collection of youth and adults intent on their timing — one of my favorite images of community.

Our opening hymn was “O Come All Ye Faithful,” hardly an unusual choice for a Christmas worship service. But the words of verse 3 hit me:

Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Sing, all you citizens of heaven above! Glory to God all glory in the highest! O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

We were singing literally in concert with people in Palestine, many of whom have no citizenship. Palestine is not a sovereign nation and so the people who live there are denied citizenship. They cannot move freely about, and are treated as “less than.”

Singing with them as fellow “citizens of heaven” had a deeper, more poignant meaning. Together we celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world through a long-ago birth in Bethlehem, which was then, as it is now, a region under occupation.

Whatever you believe — or whatever you question — I wish you a Christmas celebration that breathes new meaning into old traditions, as we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace.

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